The two probably most famous Russian monks are widely separated in time.  In a previous posting I discussed one of them, Seraphim of Sarov, who died in 1833.  Today we will look at the iconography of the second and earlier, Sergiy of Radonezh, who died 1392.   He became one of the most prominent of Russian “nationalistic” saints.  He was the founder of the Trinity-Sergiev Lavra, which grew into a very large monastic community with its own workshops and an important pilgrimage site.

Though in Russia his name is written as Sergiy, you will find it in English publications also as Sergei and Sergius, or in those with a French influence as Serge.

You have probably noticed that in the titles of monk saints, things usually follow this order, with four elements:

1.  The title Svyatuiy, “Holy.”
2.  The “rank,” title, Prepodobnuiy (loosely rendered in English as “Venerable.”
3.  The saint’s name (like Sergiy).
4.  A word identifying the saint by location, like Radonezhskiy, meaning “of Radonezh.”  This location name is one way to distinguish among several saints with the same name.

5.  Sometimes an additional title is added, such as chudotvorets, “wonder-worker.”

Let’s start with an icon from near the end of the 19th century.  Though originally cheaply and hastily painted, it nonetheless can teach us a few things.  It is an icon of Sergiy  с житем (s zhitem).  S means “with” and zhitem means “life,” so we can translate it as an icon “with the life,” that is, with scenes showing incidents from the life of the saint.  Sometimes such scenes are just painted in the background of the icon, but frequently they appear in little boxes around the edge of the main image, as in this icon.  Such a box containing an individual scene is called a клеймо (kleimo) in Russian (plural клейма/kleima).  So an icon with kleima in the border is an icon with square or rectangular cells containing additional scenes around the border of the central image.  Such scenes may vary from image to image in their number, content and order.

So here is the icon of Sergiy “with the life”:

Sergei is said to have been born in Rostov in the year 1314.  His parents were a pious couple named Kirill and Maria.  Their third son was a boy named Varfolomei (Bartholomew).  His older brothers quickly learned to read, but Varfolomei found it very difficult.  So he prayed for help in learning.

One day his father sent him out to search for missing horses.  On the way he saw a monk elder, a starets, deep in prayer under an oak tree.  Varfolomei waited patiently, and when the elder finished, he asked the boy what he wanted.  Varfolomei replied by asking the elder to pray  for him, that he might be able to learn to read and write.

Here is a non-icon painting by Mikhail Nesterov showing that encounter, which is a very well-known theme in Russian art:


The elder prayed for the boy, then reached into his bag and took out a piece of prosfor (prosphora) the bread used in the Church liturgy.  He told the boy to eat it as a sign of grace and to help him learn.  Varfolomei put it in his mouth, and it tasted sweet.  The monk then told him that he would become learned far beyond the level of his brothers, and the elder and the boy then walked together to Varfolomei’s home, where the starets ate and talked with the parents, predicting  a very learned and holy life for their son.  The parents went to the doorway with the monk as he was leaving, but suddenly he disappeared, leaving them thinking he might have been an angel.

The inscription on this kleimo says: “The youth Varfolomei, Venerable Sergiy, receives the piece of prosfor from the starets.”


After meeting the starets, Varfolomei began leading a rigorous life of prayer and fasting and pious practices, and wanted to become a monk; but his parents asked him not to do so until after their deaths.  He agreed.  In this period the family moved from Rostov to Radonezh, Then the elderly parents, now considered saints themselves, died, and Sergei spent forty days in prayer for them.  This number is significant, because in traditional Russian Orthodoxy it is believed that during these forty days the soul of the departed goes through various stages, one of which is passing through the so-called “toll-houses” where it is tested for various sins.  At the end of the forty days it reaches the place where it will spend the time until the Last Judgment.

This kleimo shows Sergiy, clothed in monk’s habit, praying before the “relics” of his parents, that is, at the tomb of his parents.

Notice the “rosary” he is holding.  It is the old lestovka or “ladder” rosary with triangular flaps at the bottom, a form which was kept by the Old Believers.

Varfolomei, after the death of his parents, went off into a deep forest with his widowed brother Stefan (Stephen) and began leading a very hard and ascetic life so rigorous that his brother could not take it and left.  But before he left, the two had built, along with their hut, a church that they dedicated to the Holy Trinity.  Varfolomei stayed on alone, and at the age of 23 he was tonsured as a monk, taking the name Sergiy from one of the pair of Roman martyrs (Sergius and Bacchus) celebrated on that day.

This kleimo shows Sergiy hard at work with his axe, constructing a monastic cell.

As is common in stories of ascetics, Sergiy was bothered by evil spirits that would visit his forest retreat, trying to frighten him into giving up his monastic life.  But he would pray the “Jesus Prayer,” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and his prayer would drive them away.  That is the scene in this kleimo:

Sergiy worked on and prayed for others to come and join with him.  One night while praying, he had a vision in which he saw a bright light and a great many birds flying around.  He heard a voice telling him that the number of people joining his community would be many like the birds.  His vision is depicted in this kleimo:

While Sergiy was still hoping for members of his community, a bear came to him.  Sergiy would leave bread out on a stump for him when he had it, and when there was only a little, he is said to have given what remained to the bear, going without himself.  This kleimo depicts Sergiy sharing his meal with the bear:

Sergiy made sure that his monastery offered help to the needy and to travelers and the ill.  It is said that once, when he was performing the liturgy, the monks saw an angel celebrating with him , and they saw a fire around the altar that entered the chalice.  That is the scene depicted in this kleimo:

Sergiy was considered a “wonderworker,” and among his miracles was resurrecting a dead boy through prayer, as shown here:

The monks at Sergiy’s monastery had to carry their water from a long distance away, until finally Sergiy went down into a ravine near the monastery and found there a little pool of rainwater.  He prayed over it, and a spring then burst out of the ground, providing the monastery with water nearby.  That is the scene shown here:

When he was dying, Sergiy received the eucharistic bread and wine:

It is said that long after his death,  in 1422 Sergiy appeared to a layman in a dream, telling him to go to the head of his monastery and ask why his relics (his body) were left in the wet ground.  During the construction of the new cathedral, his relics were said to have been uncovered and were found incorrupt, body, clothing, and all.  Then they were placed in the church.  This kleimo depicts the obretenie, the “finding” of Sergiy’s relics:

Even though it comes earlier chronologically, I have kept one scene for last, because it is life scene most often found painted as a separate icon.  It is the appearance of Mary to Sergiy.  The story is that one day he had just finished reciting the Marian prayer “It is Proper” when, resting a moment, he said to his disciple Mikhei (Micah) that something wonderful was about to happen.  Then a voice was heard, saying, “The blessed Virgin is coming.”  Mary, the apostle Peter and the evangelist John appeared.  Mary told Sergiy his prayers had been heard, and that his monastery would grow and flourish both during his life on this earth and after.  Here is that kleimo:

Now that we have seen the scene depicted in this simple and hasty manner, let’s look at the same event as painted with care in an icon that would have been considerably more expensive, though also from near the end of the 19th century:

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The icon is heavily incised and gilded, with border ornamentation characteristic of the latter part of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  It is painted in the “Westernized” manner favored by the State Church of the time.  Notice the “pearls” and “jewels” painted around and in the halos.

From roughly the same period, here is another “Westernized” icon showing Sergiy full-length, again with the elaborate border and background ornamentation often found in icons of that time:

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With such icons we are near the end of the old period of icon painting that gradually faded away with the Russian Revolution and the oppressive Communist rule that followed.


Most icons showing biblical events from the traditional accounts of the life of Jesus make obvious sense in relation to the church year:  the Nativity icon celebrates the event depicted, the birth of Jesus; the Baptism (Theophany) icon celebrates the baptism.  Even the Indiction icon, which shows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he enters the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from the book of Isaiah, makes sense in its position as the beginning of the church year.

Today’s icon, however, does not make obvious sense, in spite of the fact that it is an easily recognized scene.

It depicts the event called in Western art “Jesus Among the Doctors,” recorded in Luke 2:41-49:

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.  And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.  But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances.  And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.  And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said to him, Son, why have you thus dealt with us?  Behold, your father and I have sought you sorrowing.

And he said to them, How is it that you sought me? Know you not that I must be about my Father’s business?

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The title written on this icon is ПРЕПОЛОВЕНИЕ Г[ОСПО]ДНЕ — Prepolovenie Gospodne, meaning “[The] Middle of the Lord.”  That is rather cryptic until I tell you that the complete name of the festival it celebrates, as written in the calendar, is actually Преполовение Пятидесятницы (Prepolovenie Pyatidesyatnitsui), meaning  “[The] Middle of Pentecost,” or as it is usually written in English, “Mid-Pentecost.”

Mid-Pentecost happens on Wednesday in the middle of the fourth week after Easter, halfway between Easter and the festival of Pentecost (the celebration of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles), sometimes called “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday” in the West.

So that is what this icon type signifies in the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year:  the festival that occurs halfway between Easter and Pentecost — in “the middle.”

It is rather odd that the image of the young Jesus among the elders became used for Mid-Pentecost, because the biblical text that connects the Mid-Pentecost icon type with that festival, and is sometimes used as the title of the icon, actually refers to a different (but similar) event supposedly later in the life of Jesus, as written in John 7:14-

Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.  And the Jews marveled, saying, How knows this man letters, having never learned?  Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.

The excerpt sometimes used as the title inscription for this icon type is:

“In the Middle of the Feast Jesus Entered into the Temple…”

That excerpt originally referred to the adult Jesus and to the Jewish feast of Sukkoth, but Eastern Orthodoxy made use of that “middle of the feast” notion to apply the image instead to Mid-Pentecost.  All in all, it makes for rather confused and stretched connections, but that is tradition.  In any case, it shows us how intimately icons are connected with the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodox Church.

The troparion for the Mid-Pentecost festival also makes use of that “middle of the feast” concept:

Тропарь, глас 8
Преполовившуся празднику, / жаждущую душу мою благочестия напой водами, / яко всем, Спасе, возопил еси: / жаждай да грядет ко Мне и да пиет. / Источниче жизни нашея, Христе Боже, слава Тебе.

Troparion, voice (tone) 8:
In the middle of the feast, fill my thirsty soul with the waters of piety, as to all, Savior, you cried:  Let the thirsty come to me and drink.  Fountain of our life, Christ God, glory to you.

In Russian Orthodoxy, Mid-Pentecost is traditionally a time when both the fields and water are ritually blessed.

The type varies slightly from example to example.  In this one Joseph and Mary stand at left, and the youthful Jesus is seated in the Temple amid the elders, discussing texts with them.  Jesus holds an open book.  In some other examples, he holds a rolled scroll.






Do you remember the popular Disney movie from the 1960s called “The Parent Trap”?  In it, a girl goes to camp and discovers that she has an identical twin.  It is actually based on a 1949 story by the German author Erich Kästner titled Das Doppelte Lottchen, “Doubled Lottie.”  Today’s icon saints are like the “Doubled Lottie” story gone extreme.

To make it very simple, there are two saints very prominent throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, whether in Greek, Russian, or Balkan iconography.  They are called in English Cosmas and Damian, in Russia Kozma and Domian (sometimes spelled Damian), and in Greek Kosmas and Damianos.

As you already know from previous postings, the Eastern Orthodox calendar of saints is filled with confused and dubious stories, and Cosmas and Damian exemplify that. Why?  Because in that calendar there are three different pairs of brothers with exactly the same names and titles, and all were physicians.

1.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on July 1, said to have been born in Rome.
2.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on October 17th, said to have been born in Arabia.
3.  There is the Cosmas and Damian pair of brothers and physicians celebrated on November 1, said to have been born in Asia Minor.

To confuse matters further, all three pairs are given the title ΑΝΑΡΓΥΡΟΙ (Anargyroi)  in Greek.  An– means “without” –Argyr– means “silver,” and the –oi ending indicates the plural.  “Without silver” means that they did not accept payment (think silver coins) for their medical services, something that would horrify today’s medical profession, at least in the United States.

In Russia they are called БЕЗСРЕБРЕННИКИ (Bezsrebrenniki).  Bez– means “without” “—-srebren-” means “silver,” –nik- means loosely “person” and the –i ending indicates the plural, so the meaning is much the same as in Greek, “those who are without silver,” again the significance is that they did not take money for their healing services.  Both the Greek and Slavic titles are generally translated loosely into Engish as “Unmercenaries.”

Modern scholars of hagiography tell us that these three pairs of physician brothers/twins/unmercenaries, all of whom are martyrs, are in fact the same original pair in triplicate, with differing biographies added to them over time.  They opine that this replication of the same pair of saints came about because churches in different locations where the saints were particularly honored came, over time, to assume that “their” Cosmas and Damian were different than the Cosmas and Damian commemorated elsewhere.  As we have seen, the ranks of Eastern Orthodox saints have never really been critically examined by the Eastern Orthodox, who have never had an investigative office such as the Bollandists in the Roman Catholic Church, and so the lives of the Eastern Orthodox saints are often confused and wholly or partly fictitious.

All of that is interesting background, but the thing to remember about the iconography of Cosmas and Damian is that those one generally sees in Russian icons are the Cosmas and Damian born supposedly in Asia Minor sometime not later than the 4th century, where also they were said to have been martyred for their faith in the 3rd century.

There is a rather bizarre story about the burial of the brothers.  It is said that a woman named Palladia was so grateful for her cure that she offered them her estate in payment, which of course they refused.  But later Palladia went to Damian and gave him three eggs.  Cosmas found that Damian had accepted the eggs, and was so opposed to receiving any payment for services that on his deathbed he said that he did not want Damian buried with him.

It happened, however, that the brothers had once cured a camel.  When Damian finally died, those with him were puzzled about what to do with the body, given that Cosmas had said he did not want Damian buried with him.  The matter was solved when the camel that had been healed showed up, and began speaking in a human voice, saying that Damian had not accepted the eggs as payment for medical services, but rather just as a symbol of honor to the Holy Trinity.  So, having heard the excuse direct from the camel’s mouth,  they buried Damian with his brother Cosmas.

As in the following Russian examples, the physician brothers are shown standing side by side,  Kozma generally on the left, and Domian/Damian on the right.  Each holds a medicine box.

In the first example below, we see them painted somewhat realistically in a State Church icon in the manner of the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century.  The background or “light” of the icon is gilded and elaborately incised with twining decoration, and a small image of the “Umilenie”  type of Marian icon is above them


The next example is a late icon painted in a much earlier style.  Again it shows Kozma and Domian holding their medicine boxes, with Jesus blessing from the clouds above:

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This third image again shows them in their typical forms, holding medicine boxes, and above them is an image of the Birth of John the Forerunner.  From the position of the fingers in the “blessing” hand of Domian, this appears to be an Old Believer icon rather than a State Church image.  Note the realistic background landscape, something borrowed from Western European art, and even found, rather uncharacteristically, in many Old Believer icons.

The medicine boxes held by these saints may include medicine spoons, or, as in this example, feathers; these were used to apply medicine.

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In painters’ manuals, the three pairs of “Cosmas and Damian” saints may be distinguished somewhat like this:

The “Asia Minor” pair are depicted as in middle age, with beards of equal length, feathers in hand, holding open medicine boxes, and ochre boots on their feet.

The “Roman” pair are depicted as young, with Cosmas having the face and hair of Demetrios of Thessaloniki, and Damian like the Great Martyr George with his curly hair, holding crosses of martyrdom in their right hands and a medicine box in the left.

The “Arabian” pair are depicted like the patrons of horses Flor and Lavr (Florus and Lavrus) with Cosmas in middle age and Damian younger.

There are several “unmercenary” saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, but the most famous and most often seen in icons are the brothers Cosmas and Damian, as well as the other prominent physician saint Panteleimon, who is discussed in a previous posting.


By now, if you have been reading here regularly, you know that the saints whose supposed images are painted in icons and whose names fill the calendar of commemoration of the Eastern Orthodox Church are often either completely fictional or else heavily fictionalized,

Take  the “Great Martyr” Demetrios of Thessaloniki,  often written Demetrius of Thessalonica.  Supposedly a martyr of the early 4th century, he is the second most famous of the warrior saints, after St. George.  And yet there is no solid evidence that he ever existed.  There are varying explanations of the origin of a St. Demetrius, from a confusion with a deacon martyr of Sirmium by the same name to confusion with another martyr with the similar name Emeterius.  It is an interesting subject for students of hagiography.

Knowing that, it s nonetheless an obvious fact that there are huge numbers of icons of the supposed St. Demetrios, called Dmitriy in Russia.

Let’s take a look at a Russian icon of  Dmitriy:

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The Great Martyr George, as we have seen, is depicted in a similar manner, riding on a horse and thrusting with his lance at the dragon beneath him.  Icons of Dmitriy also depict him riding a horse and thrusting his lance at an enemy beneath him, but in this case the enemy is not a dragon, but rather a figure sometimes vaguely called the “king of the Infidels,” a symbol of the invaders who threatened the city of Thessaloniki (Salonika), which was considered to be under the saint’s protection and has a church dedicated to him.

A second similarity with George is that in some icons, particularly in the Greek and Balkan regions, Dmitriy/Demetrios also rides a horse with another, smaller figure sitting on it behind him.  But it is not a boy as in icons of George.  In icons of Demetrios, it is the bishop Cyprian, who again like the boy was forced to serve his Slav captor, and was rescued by Demetrius.

A third similarity is that in some icons of George and the Dragon, an angel descends to place a crown of victory on George’s head; the same may be seen in some icons of Demetrios.

Here is a Russian icon depicting the martyrdom of Dmitriy:

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You will often see Dmitriy called Мироточца (mirotochtsa) in Russia, or Μυροβλυτης (myrovlytes) in Greek-speaking regions. Both mean essential the same, “Myrrh-flowing,” which comes from the tradition that the relics of Dmitriy were said to ooze a fragrant oil called “myrrh” in Eastern Orthodoxy.  It is not the same as the resin properly called myrrh.

Dmitriy/Demetrios is sometimes depicted in Roman armor, sitting on a throne, with a sword in his hand.  He is also often seen standing, clothed in the same manner.



Today, at the suggestion of a reader, we will take a general look at the widespread and popular Marian icon type called in Greek Η Ζωοδόχος Πηγή — He Zoodokhos Pege, pronounced zo-o-DOKH-os pee-YEE (“g” before ee pronounced as “y”) in modern Greek.  It means literally The (He) Life-(Zoo) -holding (dokhos) Spring (Pege).  In Church Slavic it is ЖИВОНОСНЫ ИСТОЧНИК — Zhivonosnui Istochnik, literally Life- (Zhivo-) bearing (nosnui) Spring (Istochnik).

There are many variant English forms of the title such as “Life-giving Fountain,” “Life-giving Wellspring,” “Life-giving Font” and so forth, but I will just call it “The Life-giving Spring.”

Here is a rather folkish Greek icon of the type:

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Here is a simple Russian rendering:

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This particular Russian example has a slight variation on the title, writing it Zhivonosnuiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — The “Life-bearing Most Holy Mother of God.”  The type did not become popular in Russia until the 18th century.

Whether Greek or Russian, the essential of the type is an image of Mary holding the child Christ, seated in the chalice-shaped basin of a fountain, from which waters flow into a tank below.  There are usually two angels, one at either side above, as well as people at the fountain, from few to many.  In this Russian example, the angels hold disks with the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ.”

The traditional origin story of this type tells us that in 5th-century Constantinople, there was a grove of trees near the so-called “Golden Gate.”  The grove was dedicated to Mary, and inside the grove was a spring noted for its healing powers, but by that time it had been neglected and had become silted up and overgrown.

It happened that near the site, a soldier named Leo Marcellus encountered a blind man who had lost his way.  Marcellus took the weary man into the grove to cool off and rest a bit while he went to look for water to revive him.  Suddenly he heard a voice that said, “Leo! Do not look far away for water.  It is nearby!

Leo looked around, but he could not see any water.  But again he heard the voice, and it said “Emperor Leo!  Come into the shade of the grove, and draw some water that you find there, and give it to the thirsty man.  Put some mud that you find in the spring on his eyes, and then you will know who I am, who has long made this place sacred!  Soon I will help you build a church here, and all who come to this place and call on my name with faith will have healing of their ailments!

Leo took mud from the soggy ground, and put it on the blind man’s eyes, and gave him water to drink.  All at once the blind man regained his sight, and went off into the city praising Mary.

Eventually, Leo Marcellus was made emperor, as the voice had predicted.  Leo had the site of the spring cleaned up and a new church built there.

The Emperor Justinian, who reigned in the 6th century, became seriously ill.  But he too heard a voice, this time in the middle of the night.  The voice told him to rise up and go to the spring, and he would become healthy.  The Emperor obeyed, and, so the tale goes, was cured, and he built a newer church at the site of the spring, and a monastery also was eventually created there.

Constantinople fell to the invading Muslims in 1453.  Sultan Bayazid had the church at the spring completely destroyed, and the vicinity eventually became a Muslim cemetery.  Christians were not permitted to even come near the site.

As time passed, the restrictions were eased, and Christians were allowed to build a small church there, but it was destroyed in 1821.  Christians later cleaned up the site and found the spring again, and once more used its waters, and more miracles were attributed to the spring.

In 1835 another church was built on the site, and a church of the “Life-giving Spring” still exists today in the Balikli neighborhood of Istanbul, and the water from the spring flows into a basin in which fish swim.  An old story says that when Constantinople fell to the Turks, a man was frying fish near the spring.  When he heard the news, he said he would only believe it if the fish in his pan came to life again.  The fish jumped from the pan into the spring, and began swimming about.

This origin story is a mixture of old legends and history.

As to the iconography of the “Life-giving Spring” type, as already mentioned, the essentials are the Mother and Child in the basin of a fountain, and often two angels, as well as people around the fountain.

There is much variation in the number and kinds of people around the fountain from example to example.  Some show an emperor or emperors, queens, soldiers, the Patriarch of Constantinople, bishops, deacons, and all kinds of men, women and children coming to the fountain for healing.  Some include Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom drawing water from the fountain and giving it to the afflicted.  Sometimes other saints are shown.  Often versions include, among the afflicted, a dead man restored to life by the water as well as a paralyzed man being healed.  Renditions of the type may also include fish swimming in the tank below the chalice-shaped basin in which Mary sits, and from which the healing waters flow, as in the Greek example shown above.

The following Russian example, a “State Church” icon of the 18th century, names the two angels shown beside Mary as Mikhail (Michael) at left, and Gavriil (Gabriel) at right.  The blue background of this icon is typical of many 18th-century State Church icons.  It was a very popular color in that period:

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As we have seen in previous postings, State Church icons tend to be painted more realistically in imitation of Western European painting, in contrast to the stylization and abstraction favored by the Old Believers, who preserved the earlier Russian manner of painting, though with some variation.



Today’s icon is an easy one to recognize.  It is John the Forerunner (John the Baptist).  This icon appears to be from an iconostasis, more specifically from the “Deisis” tier that shows numerous saints approaching Jesus from both sides, like petitioners approaching the emperor in a Byzantine court.  In fact Christians tended to imagine Heaven as being like the court of an emperor, with saints waiting with their requests on behalf of humanity.

We should recognize John from his long and tangled hair, hIs scraggly beard, and his shaggy, hairy garment that in Russia was commonly called a vlasyanitsa, meaning a “hair shirt.”  But if there remains any doubt, it is removed by the title inscription:

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As you can see, there is no space between the words.  The first word Svyatuiy, meaning “Holy” (thus “Saint”) is abbreviated:

We see the С (s) with a Т (t) above it, followed by the Ы (ui) that merges into the  Й.  We have to add the missing letters to read it as Svyatuiy, but this “Holy” title for saints is so common and prevalent in icons that we should now easily recognize what it is.

The second word is his name, IOAN (John):

We see the I, then the O in the form of the old Greek letter Omega, followed by the A and the N.  Remember that in reading Cyrillic letters, when the bar slants to the left (И), the letter is an “I” but when it slants to the right or seems to be straight, it is an “N” (Н)  The little letter that looks somewhat like “b” written above the “N” is Ъ; it has no sound of its own, but affects the pronunciation of the preceding consonant (you need not worry about that if you just want to read instead of pronounce; think of it as a silent letter).

Now we come to the last word, PREDTECHA, meaning “Forerunner.”  The painter has written in in two parts, with the ПРЕД- (Pred-) in the first line,  Notice that he has written the “d” (д) above the “PR” as a susperscript letter, though it is faded here:

He has written the -ТЕЧА (-techa) in the second line.  The little mark that looks like a flower at the end of the title is just ornamentation:

It would be easy to mistake the very last letter for a Cyrillic И (“i”), but it is not; it is just that the upward-sloping line joining the left vertical in the “a” to the right vertical has worn away with age.

Did you notice, by the way, how the painter has left quite visible the scratched-in lines that mark out the space for writing the title?

So, we have the whole title inscription:  SVYATUIY IOAN PREDTECHA, “HOLY JOHN THE FORERUNNER.”

A characteristic of old Russian icons in general is the elongation of the figures, with the bodies of the saints “stretched out” to a quite unnatural degree.  This was an attempt to distinguish them from ordinary, worldly people, and to show us that we are seeing a “spiritual” depiction of a saint rather than the mere “physical” body.  We find the same thing in earlier Western European sculpture of the Romanesque and Gothic periods.  This lengthening of the saints also fits well with the proportions of the icon screen into which such an icon might be fitted.

So here is John, with his feet resting on the little field of dark color at the bottom, the “ground” that is so characteristic of many Russian icons of the 17th century:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

As you can see, John’s shaggy, hairy garment is painted by simply adding multiple thin strokes of very whitened color over the darker background.  Notice also that this icon, like many before the 18th century, has a kovcheg, an “ark” or “box,” meaning that the image has a raised border and a recessed surface upon which the image of the saint is painted.  One sometimes finds a kovcheg in later icons, but it is more common in earlier examples. It meant more work in preparing the panel for painting — considerably more work in a panel the size of this icon of John.




Prepare yourself.  This is a long one.

Today we will look again at the  “Major Festivals” icon type.  These commonly have the Resurrection type in the center, surrounded by icons for each of the major church festivals.  Commonly there are usually twelve festivals shown with the central Resurrection image, but some examples, like this one, show sixteen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

First, let’s look at the central Resurrection type, which in this form is quite common in icons by the 19th century:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

At the top is the title, Voskresenie Khristovo, “The Resurrection of Christ.”

This Resurrection type includes several scenes.  Let’s look more closely:

Here we see the Repentant Thief, called Rakh in Russia, as he comes to the Gates of Paradise.  There he is stopped by a cherub (Russians use the plural “cherubim” for the singular) with a flaming sword; but when Rakh shows his cross, the angel allows him to enter.  At left we see Rakh inside Paradise, conversing with the Old Testament persons Enoch and the Prophet Elijah.


Here the Zhenui Mironositsui — the “Myrhh-bearing Women — Come to the tomb and see an angel sitting upon the stone that has been rolled away from the entrance.


Here “the Lord” has commanded the angels to bind Satan.


Here Jesus appears after his resurrection to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.


It was common in late icons of the Resurrection to include both the “Western” and the traditional Eastern forms of the Resurrection.  Here is the “Western” form, Jesus in a mandorla of light above his tomb.


Here is the earlier Resurrection type, called “The Descent into Hades.”  Jesus, having broken down the Gates of Hades,  grasps the old Testament Patriarch Adam by the hand as Eve and other Old Testament figures are freed from Hades and begin their ascent to the Gates of Paradise.  Hades is commonly pictured in later icons such as this one as a great beast with mouth wide open, an image borrowed from Western Europe.

I have already discussed the surrounding feast day icons in a previous posting, so now let’s move on to a variation on the Major Festivals Icon:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

As you can see, the painter has added a sequence of additional images from the “Passion of Christ” cycle around the central Resurrection image.  And he has abbreviated the Resurrection type, not only leaving out the appearance of Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, but also leaving out the Thief Rakh (Rakh Razboinik) outside the Gate of Paradise, but he has nonetheless shown Enoch and Elijah within.  You will notice other omissions as well.

Here is a closer look:

And now let’s look at the “Passion” images, each identified by inscription:


The inscriptions on this top four (left to right) are:

1. “The Mystic Supper,” known as the “Last Supper” in Western Europe.

2.  “The  Lord Washes of the Feet of the Disciples”

3.  “The Prayer of the Cup of our Lord”

4.  “The Betrayal by Judas of our Lord”

Here are the two middle images on the right:

5.  “The Bringing to Pilate of our Lord”

6.  “The Placing of the Crown of Thorns”

Here are the bottom images:

7.  “The Carrying of the Cross of our Lord”

8.  “The Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ”

9.  “The Removal from the Cross of our Lord”

10.  The Placing in the Tomb of our Lord”

And here are the images in the center of the left side:

11.  “The Bringing to Caiaphas of our Lord”

12.  “The Scourging at the Pillar of our Lord”

Let’s take a quick look (well, maybe not so quick) at another “Major Festivals” variant image:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:

We can see that the central Resurrection image is very similar to the first we examined:


Let’s look at individual scenes again.  First, here is Rakh at the Gate of Paradise and inside Paradise with Enoch and Elijah:


And here is the scene of the Myrrh-Bearing Women (Mary Magdalene, Salome, and the other Mary) seeing the angel at the tomb.  But notice that just to the right of the women is an additional scene found in some examples.  The inscription tells us what it is:

“Peter Comes to the Tomb and Sees the Linen Clothes Lying.”  It is Peter entering the tomb of Jesus and finding the empty linen graveclothes:

Below the Myrrh-Bearing Women, we see the scene identified by inscription as “The Lord Commands the Angels to Bind Satan and to Beat Him Mercilessly”:

Here is this icon’s version of the “Descent into Hades.”  Jesus, standing on the fallen Gates of Hades, grasps Adam by the hand as Eve bows, and behind her stand the Old Testament righteous women Rachel and Sarah:


And here is a look at the “Jesus Appears to his Disciples at the Sea of Tiberias” scene.  We see the apostles John and James (Iakov) in the boat, and Peter has jumped into the sea to get quickly to Jesus on the shore:


Finally, we will end today’s discussion with a look at four of the bottom images in the third “Major Festivals” icon variant.  Perhaps you noticed that they do not seem to fit with the rest in the outer border.  You are right; they do not.  They were probably added at the request of the customer who ordered the icon.  Let’s take a closer look (and no doubt you are glad that we are finally near the end of this posting):

First, here is the image at bottom left.  You probably recognize him as one of the most popular of Russian saints.  His title inscription at left reads Svyatuiy Nikolae Chu[dotvorets] — “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.”  And by the way, the little guy at lower left is one of the Four Evangelists in the outer corners of this icon (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); this one is Mark:


Yes, we have finally reached the last images.  Here they are:

The two saints at left are identified by title inscriptions as

1.  Svyatuiy Svyashchenomuchenik Kharlampiy — “Holy Priest-Martyr Kharlampy” (Kharalampios)

2.  Svyatuiy Veliko Muchenik Ioann Voin’ — “Holy Great Martyr John the Warrior”

The third image is a well-known Marian icon:

3.  Pecherskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — “The Pecherskaya Most Holy Mother of God.”  She is shown with saints Antoniy Pecherskiy and Feodosiy (Theodosius) Pecherskiy standing beside her.

4.  Svyatuiy Prepodobnuiy Sergiy Radonezhskiy Chudotvorets –“Holy Venerable Sergiy of Radonezh, Wonderworker.”  Sergiy is another of the most popular Russian saints.  He is shown here standing at the tomb of his mother Maria and father Kirill, both of whom became monastics.  They had asked him to wait to become a monk until they had both died.

I could talk in much greater detail about the icons shown here, but even the most enthusiastic readers of information on icons can only endure so much at a given time.

Now you can lean back, rest your eyes, perhaps sip a nice cup of herbal tea, and wonder why you ever got involved with icons and their interpretation.